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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bruce Prescott got me thinking some more about why he and I are writing different kinds of warnings about what churches need to be concerned about in the current day and age in the U.S. I agree wholeheartedly with his critique of the Christian America crowd and their more extreme cousins, the Reconstructionists. So it is a bit puzzling, as his comment on my previous post indicated, that we are talking about such different problems for the church. He wrote:

We must not be living in the same country.

I saw the culture-warrior Christians in the Religious Right rallying the troops for war with Iraq.

You write as if it were the ACLU, Americans United and progressive Christians.


So here are my musings, posted as a comment on Mainstream Baptist.

Bruce says that I seem to be living in a different country. You may be on to something, so I want to experiment with that idea.

Your earlier remarks had highlighted the prominence of Reconstructionist ideas in Oklahoma. You also encounter them on the web, a place where everyone can become a published author with a little time and access.

I know these people meet and write and organize. I've taught about them in my classes. I have a colleague who researches them. But they are speaking a language that has not made much sense to my undergraduate students (a few years back) nor to my divinity students now.

Moreover, when I deal with public high school teachers and students and with college or divinity students or professors from the other universities in our area, this kind of Reconstructionist idea is the farthest thing from their view of the US. If it is true that about 40% of the people in the US go to college, as I recall (the figure I found was 35% of people at the age to start college in 2002, see http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i27/27b05001.htm, which would not include those who go later in life) then one could assume that many of these people find themselves in a milieu similar to mine. Of course, prominent Reconstructionists include many college graduates, so I am not trying to claim that going to college is an absolute indicator of whether someone would be attracted either to Reconstructionist or to Secular supremacist ideas.

A second angle to take on living in different countries could be affected by the generally progressive politics of my county and city. Maybe a better argument would be that in Durham, NC, there are not many Reconstructionists to be found (even though one prominent Baptist pastor may be in sympathy with them). Your experience in Oklahoma may be different, and no doubt Idaho has attracted such people.

One might construe the two countries according to different kinds of churches and their agendas. As for the threat of conservative so-called Christians believing in a renewed crusade, in a war to bring on Armageddon, or in a revived Imperialism of the US as the supercession of Israel, I am with you fully that this is the current great threat to peace in the US and the world. Many of these people have so many doctrines wrong about the nature of the church and the nature of the state, sadly built upon certain versions of Puritan heritage of the Reformed tradition. That is part of what I was trying to address in my earlier post about non-violence.

On the other hand, churches who are engaging in grassroots democracy and community transformation, whether conservative evangelical or progressive evangelical or mainstream protestant or Roman catholic, are recognizing the failure of conservative or liberal politics-as-usual to help the poor or deal with white supremacy. Christian Community Development, IAF/DART/Gamaliel/PICO, Leadership Foundations of America, and a variety of local churches are making changes through their own efforts and by joining efforts with others to leverage social change. That is happening all over the country, and it is something I have focused my attention on. But nowhere that I have looked have these efforts managed to eliminate poverty or racism completely.

When I look at church-state issues from the point of view of what churches must do to faithfully be the presence of Christ here and now, in this country, under this government, then part of what I want churches to know is that they don't have to accept the hemmed-in, domesticated role assigned them in the doctrine of the spheres. On pilgrimage in the world, such churches and their people engage the thrones and dominions through participatory democracy and representative government, and also by building their own structures for social change. This latter is their calling regardless of what political order they are living in--one where the secularism of eastern universities shapes the thought of many, or one where Reconstructionists can get the ear of a regional newspaper.

When I look at church-state relations from the point of view of how government policies can maintain a proper relationship toward churches and "religions," then I still find 1st amendment jurisprudence which promotes benevolent neutrality a good place to hang my hat. Neutrality will never quite be neutral, so the effort has to be asymptotic. Practical reasoning of the highest care is required. I still tell my friends they are better off not taking the "faith-based" money from the government to do their ministries. I work to stop the attack on schools that "No Child Left Behind" legislation has put in place to redirect government funds to for-profit corporations and private religious groups wanting to get in on the government purse through vouchers. But this is a defensive effort, a way to maintain detente. It is not a constructive ecclesiology. It helps keep the civil society from going too far off the path of the common good. But it does not put the church on the path of Kingdom building.

Finally, when national elections are falling out 50-50 and opinion polls are falling out 40-40, then that might be one more reason to feel that we are talking about different countries.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A few of my friends got an exchange going, in robust graduate school style, about how to talk about church and state in relation to a pluralistic vision of the good society. It took place on Bruce Prescott's blog, so if you want to know the context, here is where I posted first posted my comments. It all started on October 25.

I spent enough time writing it that I decided I ought to post it here as well. Most of what comes after the opening paragraphs could make pretty good sense on its own. But the backgroud is all available on the previous links.

Dr. Prescott and Dr. Freeman are actually both giving important insights true to the writings of Roger Williams. Williams does provide much fodder for political thought, and his political thought is especially concerned with the protection of a free church.

This particular aspect of the debate about church and state in recent decades has battled around an impasse. Part of the reason for the impasse is the broad reassessment among Baptists, the Reformed Tradition, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics about the shortcomings of their own traditions and about the way they characterize one another's doctrine.

I find that there are still haters of the Roman Catholic Church among Baptists. Neither of these scholars is numbered among them. On the other hand, neither of them is ready to bend the knee to the supremacy of Rome or its bishop. Those are not the only two possibilities.

Nor are the only two possibilities in church-state relations (1) to accept the supremacy of pluralist visions of the good society as a necessary corollary of faithful ecclesiology and separation of church and state or (2) militaristic, theocratic absolutism. It is not either (1) nation-state as divinely appointed umpire of the limits of religion, or (2) Muenster. One can doubt the competence of the nation-state to be a fair arbiter of faith without throwing out the valuable traditions of church-state separation which Baptists rightly treasure. One can even doubt that the pluralistic telos of U.S. culture is aligned with proclaiming the Reign of God without wanting the Reign of God to be enforced through Reconstructionist or other heretical models of coercive Christianity.

What was said in only muted terms in the original remarks by Dr. Newman was that a church which affirms the Lordship of Jesus as its political order can do so faithfully only in an authentic commitment to follow Jesus' path of non-violence. To claim, "Jesus is Lord," can only have integrity if the church disavows violence. Seventeen centuries of willingness to bear arms against the enemies we love has produced enough Muensters and Auschwitzes that we ought to be able to get it through our thick skulls that separation of church and state must mean separation of church and violence. I admit that this is a minority position in Baptist theology. But it is a minority position for the very reason that most Baptists accepted the Reformed Tradition's doctrine of the Divinely Sanctioned State as holding hegemony over bodies, leaving the inward life of the mind to be ruled by the church. Yet the New Testament says to present our bodies a living sacrifice, not only our minds.

Setting aside violence does not mean that churches have to leave the social realm to governments and corporations to rule as they will. In the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Lawndale Community Church has reshaped life by transgressing the imposed distinctions between politics and religion. Getting housing up to code, providing health care, educating children, creating jobs, can't merely be left to the powers and authorities which are dominated by the rich who seek their own self-interest. The church steps out and joins God in making a way where there is no way.

The result often is, as Yoder says, a kind of spiritual osmosis, by which the government, the corporations, the world's social structures get on the bandwagon and do their part to build a better community. This is a fully political model of ecclesiology, but not one that is built on a theocratic absolutism. It is a teleological understanding of God's Reign as already and not yet. It is the irruption of the Spirit, to transform the social existence, the political order, in which people live. It is what John and Vera Mae Perkins did in Mississippi. It is what the Latino Pastoral Action Center is doing in the Bronx, New York, and what St. Paul Community Baptist Church is doing in Brooklyn, New York, what Mission Waco is doing in Waco, Texas, and what Friendship West Baptist Church is doing in Dallas, Texas.

It is not Christian Reconstructionism. It is compatible with strict separation of church and state as an institutional arrangement by which churches do not depend on government to do their work nor does government select one or some churches or religions to be its agents. Such an ecclesiology recognizes that governments and churches both make all-encompassing claims on human lives, but can agree that the church has no intention or permission or birthright to make those claims under threat of violence. It does not judge worldly government as competent to make the expansive claims that it makes, for the kingdoms of this world are passing away.

Such a church can agree with Dr. Newman that church-state separation is a good worth protecting as well as that "Jesus is Lord" is our confession without reservation.

The high level of rhetoric in this exchange reminds me a bit of why I am a former Southern Baptist and also a former Southern Baptist Exile. I don't mean that the Baptists with whom I share regular fellowship are not equally capable of harsh exchanges.

Associating now with National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, and Lott Carey Baptists, I also remember that my Southern Baptist upbringing led me to believe Black Baptists were a deficient form of Baptist life. I don't think anyone in this discussion believes that now. But I do believe that the differences between Black Baptists, English Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, and Moderate Baptists, among many others, are often ignored and belittled by the claim that one stream of Baptist thought represents true Baptists.

Helwys and Smyth, as two candidates for the founders of the Baptist Movement, should make plain to us that the debate over the willingness of Baptists to kill, when commanded by the ruler of their geographical location, has been and remains a lively issue among Baptists. Strong claims for non-violence remain prominent in the past half-century of Baptist life in the U.S. And on the acceptance or rejection of cooperating in state violence hinges much of how we interpret the Lordship of Jesus Christ while we observe the strict separation of church and state.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I visited John and Vera Mae Perkins in Jackson, MS, this week. It is hard for me to express the extent to which my understanding of the church, its relation to the world, and its approach to living out the Reign of God, have been challenged and changed since coming to know these people. By God's grace I read an essay by Dr. Tammy Williams, written when she was still a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary. The book was Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition, edited by Nancey Murphy, et al. In it, Tammy wrote about virtue ethics in relation to race relations, and her essay focused around the story of Voice of Calvary Ministries and the work of John and Vera Mae Perkins.

It was an awakening to me. I had studied academic theology, plowed through many books, and processed the traditions of church-state relations in theological writings. I had latched onto certain approaches to ecclesiology as crucial for a critique and construction of the church amidst the context of the modern nation-state. But I had only begun to scratch the surface of what the form of such an ecclesiology would be in the setting of the United States. And then I read Tammy's essay.

I remain convinced after seven years of further study that there is not more faithful witness to the calling of the church to follow Jesus than the movement with which the Perkins's are so intricately associated--Christian Community Development. It is a movement which appeared by the coming together of many churches and ministry leaders who had come to understand the church's mission as bringing the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole community, or as Latino leaders said, an integral approach to ministry.

This Tuesday, John Perkins talked to me about the gospel as God's loving way of coming to meet us at the deepest level of our need. For him, it was a need to know he was significant to someone, having lost his mother to death and having his father leave him to live with relatives. He grew up thinking he was not as "special" as other kids with mothers or fathers to live with. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he was not as good as other kids, causing his dad to leave him. But the good news came to him that God loves him and wants to live life with him. Learning this to be God's way, Perkins realized that he was to be the bearer of this good news to others. If they were having health problems, he was to demonstrate God's live by taking them to a clinic, or even convincing a doctor to come set up a clinic to serve the poor. If they had no place to live, he could be God's love by getting them a place to stay, and even building or renovating housing that can be affordable for the poor. The gospel reaches the deep needs of people and changes them into its agents.

He has written elsewhere that he also came to see that the gospel was not about a solitary life with God. It was about community. The gift God has offered us as the very purpose of our existence is community, a shared life, a life of growth through mutual accountability, a life of love and care for one another. There is no higher end. God calls us together to be brothers and sisters, to have power to bring change by being a united people serving a God of love and justice.

Perkins formulated his understanding of ministry around three Rs. The three Rs are part of the eight principles of Christian Community Development. They are Relocation, an incarnational ministry of living among the poor; Redistribution, a sharing of gifts and talents in communities where leadership and professional services are absent; and Reconciliation, briding the divisions across racial and class divisions. The three Rs are a challenge to every church to re-examine its mission and practices.

I thank God for another chance to learn from John and Vera Mae Perkins.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Today was the unveiling of a new historical marker in Raleigh, NC, in front of the building where I teach. It commemorates the Leonard School of Medicine which began at Shaw University in 1882, then eventually closed in 1918, having trained over 400 African American physicians to serve all over the South and beyond.

We heard stories from family members of Leonard Medical School graduates. They were the kinds of stories that make one feel honored to be in the presence of goodness, to follow in the footsteps of greatness. Shaw University Divinity School now operates in the historic Leonard Hall. Next door is the Leonard Hospital, now called Tyler Hall, where much of the university administration is housed.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

More information on school homicides is available with a little digging around. I had heard a commentator make a vague statement about 100 school shootings since Columbine, and later I started wondering what it meant. I tried to locate an audio recording of the original statement, but I can't figure out when or where I heard it.

But I did find out some other things. I found out something that confirmed my undocumented impressions--school violence is not something new. The worst recorded incident of school violence in the US, the homicide of 45 people, occurred in Michigan in 1927 when a man blew up a school building. I have read and heard stories of rural schools in which teachers were threatened or harmed by unruly students as far back as the 1800s. The US has been a violent place for a long time.

Moreover, the current period, notwithstanding the last couple of weeks, has shown a significant decline in school violence and homicides. In both 1992-93 and 1993-94, there were 42 homicides on school grounds. Even 1999-99, the Columbine year, was much lower than that with 25 homicides. Recent years have mostly had 10 or fewer homicides at schools. I am still disturbed by any homicide, at school or away from school. But some things, probably including better safety policies, have improved the situation of violence in schools.

Are there trends which contradict these homicide figures? I certainly read anecdotal accounts from teachers and principals of a greater level of fear of student violence toward them, but I don't have data to agree or disagree. One graph, on the same page as linked above for homicides, claims that students have become less afraid at school over recent years.

None of this changes my concerns about a violent society, disturbed conceptions of manhood, and violence against women. But it does show that our awareness of school violence has changed dramatically in recent years.

The growth of news as entertainment, voyeuristic news, and live and no longer live videotapes running over and over, round the clock, has changed our understanding of violence in schools. Dramatic televised reports of school violence have raised our perception of the frequency of school violence even though the actual incidents have declined.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The spate of school shootings in the past week has left me reeling. I have two teen-aged daughters who attend public schools, and this week's events make me shake and weep for them and the world they live in.

I previously had categorized school shootings in a certain way in my mind. I saw them as reflecting the society's promotion of aggression as the essence of manliness, combined with the rage of young people, especially young men, who find themselves in a world of shifting sands and uncertain identity. All that was connected to a militarized, warmaking society both in the official government policies and in the self-centered nihilism of corporate boardrooms and street gangs.

Always vaguely tied to that framing of the issue was the degradation of women in popular culture and media. I also knew that the violence against women and children in homes was one aspect of what I heard Ched Myers call "a nation addicted to violence." But this gendered aspect of the problem had remained somewhat in the background for me until recently.

A few weeks ago I read Martha Mendoza's study of the prevalence of sexual assault on young women and men by military recruiters who have legally mandated access to public schools. The schools are forced to allow these outsiders, many of whom have been protected by the continued lack of concern in the military ranks about mistreatment of women. This angers me no end and has raised my level of anxiety about my daughter's safety.

Now these killings in Colorado and Pennsylvania have shaken me up again. In Colorado, a man walked into a school armed, and freely made his way into a classroom where he selected six girls as his victims, sending out the boys, some other girls, and the teacher. The news stories quote one girl as saying he seemed to be preferring primarily smaller girls with blonde hair, although a girl with brown hair was also in the group. Objectifying these girls by their age, body type, and hair color, he proceded to molest them.

What does this man's story tell us about the malformation of men in our society? What drove this man to act? Was it some sort of hatred of young women? Fear or resentment of the power of women? Desire for power over the weak? Sexual desire distorted and perverted toward violence? The news stories report that he designed and ran "haunted houses" for Halloween, another artifact of a society addicted to violence. He reportedly encouraged workers to make their scenes and acts as disturbingly scary as possible. Maybe his actions at the school were his way of taking one last overdose on an addiction to causing people to be terrified. When a human being becomes habituated to horror for thrills, then the whole complex of emotion, reason, and brain chemistry becomes intertwined in it.

Under pressure from the SWAT team's attack, he shot and killed one of the girls. Why he shot only one, we don't know. Maybe he felt the horror of what he had done, and therefore turned the gun on himself. Or more likely, he ran out of time and wanted to control his own death.

The Pennsylvania story is equally horrifying and even harder to interpret from the news accounts. At the heart of it is a similar story. The man entered the school with guns. He sent out the boys, the adult women, and the very young girls. Eleven girls between first grade and eighth grade, perhaps including an older teen who served as a teacher's aide, were bound hand and foot and lined up by the chalkboard. When the police showed up, the man decided to finish his plan, shooting all of the girls execution style before killing himself. Three girls died on the site. Seven more went to the hospital, and stories indicate that most if not all were shot in the head. Already at this writing, two more have died. All five others remain in critical condition. Very little information is available, but two who died were as young as seven years old.

The names of the five who have died are as follows: Naomi Rose Edersole, 7; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; Marian Fisher, 13; Mary Liz Miller, 8; Lina Miller, 7. The last two are sisters. How terribly tragic that he stole away their young lives and their families' joy in them.

Why kill only girls? Why kill children? Neighbors described the man as a caring father and husband, so obviously something beneath the surface was horribly wrong. News accounts only talk about his expressed need to avenge something from his childhood, twenty years ago. It has something to do with his molesting of young children when he was 12 years old. No one seems to think that the particular neighbors or the particular children were anything but a "target of opportunity," easy to get to and use for his purposes. People also speculate that the death of a child in his family may also be related, but if so, why? He is said to have stated he was angry with life and God. Does this act somehow pay God back?

Did his past create in him a deep-seated hatred for young girls? It is widely observed that some people become sexually fixated on teens or even preteens. Psychoanalytic theorists might offer some explanations that would make sense. Theories of moral and spiritual formation and development can also give some insight. Addiction and recovery models shed some light, but these are not fully explanatory.

Something has gone terribly wrong in the formation of these men and boys who become murderers, and the fact of the prevalence of similar cases means that more than an individual explanation is needed. What conditions produce this kind of explosion of hatred and desperation? The Pennsylvania attack was the 100th school shooting since the Columbine High School tragedy of 1999. One hundred school shootings in seven years can't be called a series of isolated events. The formation of men in this culture has been undermined and overwhelmed by corrupted convictions and practices about manhood, identity, and strength, and over and over young girls and women are paying the price as recipients of violence. Nothing could be more clear after the past week.

God, please protect my precious daughters, and the daughters of all others who must live in a world where evil can rise up and strike in the unlikeliest of places, when we least expect it, against your will for which we pray to be done on earth. And please shield my beloved son, and the sons of all others from a world where being a man seems to necessitate aggression and violence, both of which are against our true nature revealed in the Incarnate One. May my children and the children of others live in peace, with the joy of family and community, in the midst of your love, and may they grow old in gratitude for your provision, among friends and loved ones until that time that they may be raised in a new body to your presence forevermore. Amen
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